I was 24 years old when I preached my first Christmas morning sermon. I was not the congregation’s first choice, but they had few options.
Between my second and third years of seminary, I took some time to get married and to test drive this thing called ministry. I became what was called then a “student pastor” in a university town in Iowa, where I hoped to learn the ropes from a seasoned pastor.
That seasoned pastor took one look at me and decided to pursue a call to a church in Colorado which, according to his tearful congregation in Iowa, would be a whole lot closer to the ski slopes which he loved. That left me as the best – and perhaps the only – choice for Christmas morning 1977.
With my shoulder-length hair, aviator glasses, and an ill-fitting, three-piece corduroy suit, I must have been quite a sight, standing at the front of that church. Photos from the era confirm that I was tall, disturbingly skinny, and not exactly a charismatic presence in the pulpit.
It was my first Christmas away from home, and it was to be the first of nearly 40 – and still counting – Christmases away from home.
I hope I had the good sense to throw away that first Christmas sermon, but more than likely it is in a box in a damp basement, along with a lot of other old sermons, waiting to be recycled.
The sermon I preached that Christmas morning nearly 40 years ago was titled “The Gleam That is Christmas,” and my main point, rooted nowhere in the biblical text, was that we should be childlike in our approach to the Christmas story. It was best, I remember saying, to read the story and sing the carols and lose ourselves in the wonder and mystery of it all. My congregation was probably relieved that I did not plan to make my sermon the main point of worship that day.
Looking back, I was probably grieving the loss of my own childhood and trying my best to hold on to some part of it, especially the childlike wonder and mystery of it all.
I will be preaching the Christmas morning sermon once again this year – in Zurich, Switzerland, of all places – and I already know what I am going to say. My sermon will be, as I hope all of my sermons over the years have been, something about Jesus. I am glad he was born.
(Photo: That’s my backyard in Holland, Michigan.)